Atlas Roofing Co. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Comm'n,
430 U.S. 442 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Atlas Roofing Co., Inc. v. Occupational Safety Comm'n, 430 U.S. 442 (1977)

Atlas Roofing Co., Inc. v. Occupational Safety and Health Commission

No. 75-746

Argued November 29, 1976

Decided March 23, 1977*

430 U.S. 442


Upon finding that the existing state statutory remedies and common law actions for negligence and wrongful death were inadequate to protect employees from death and injury due to unsafe working conditions, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), under which a new statutory duty was imposed on employers to avoid maintaining unsafe working conditions. Two new remedies were provided by permitting the Federal Government, proceeding before an administrative agency, (1) to obtain abatement orders requiring employers to correct unsafe working conditions, and (2) to impose civil penalties on any employer maintaining any unsafe working condition. If an employer contests a penalty or abatement order, an evidentiary hearing is then held before an administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Commission), who is empowered to affirm, modify, or vacate the proposed abatement order and penalty. The judge's decision becomes the Commission's final, appealable order, subject to review by the full Commission. If such review is granted, the Commission's subsequent order directing abatement and payment of a penalty becomes final unless the employer petitions for judicial review in the appropriate court of appeals, but the Commission's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. If the employer fails to pay the assessed penalty, the Secretary of Labor may commence a collection action in a federal district court in which neither the fact of the violation nor the propriety of the penalty assessed may be retried. In the instant cases separate abatement orders were issued and penalties proposed against petitioners for violations of safety standards promulgated under OSHA. After hearings were held before Administrative Law Judges when petitioners each contested the orders

Page 430 U. S. 443

and penalties, and the judges and later the Commission had affirmed the findings of violations and the abatement orders and had assessed penalties, petitioners sought judicial review in the Courts of Appeals, challenging both the Commission's factual findings that violations had occurred and the constitutionality of OSHA's enforcement procedures. Each Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission's orders over each petitioner's contention that the failure to afford the employer a jury trial on the question whether it had violated OSHA contravened the Seventh Amendment, which provides that, "[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved."

Held: The Seventh Amendment does not prevent Congress from assigning to an administrative agency the task of adjudicating violations of OSHA. When Congress creates new statutory "public rights," it may assign their adjudication to an administrative agency with which a jury trial would be incompatible, without violating the Seventh Amendment's injunction that jury trial is to be "preserved" in "suits at common law." That Amendment was never intended to establish the jury as the exclusive mechanism for factfinding in civil cases, but took the existing legal order as it found it, and hence there is little or no basis for now interpreting it as providing an impenetrable barrier to administrative factfinding under otherwise valid federal regulatory statutes. The Amendment did not render Congress powerless -- when it concluded that remedies available in courts of law were inadequate to cope with a problem within its power to regulate -- so to create such new public rights and remedies by statute and commit their enforcement, if it chose, to a tribunal other than a court of law (such as an administrative agency) in which facts are not found by juries. Pp. 430 U. S. 449-461.

No. 75-746, 518 F.2d 990, and No. 75-748, 519 F.2d 1200, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except BLACKMUN, J., who took no part in the decision of the cases.

Page 430 U. S. 444

Primary Holding

Congress has the power to give an executive agency authority over adjudicating violations of a new public rights statute, without infringing the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.


Pursuant to a Congressional statute, companies were forbidden to maintain unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. The federal government was granted the power to impose civil penalties or get abatement orders in administrative proceedings if a violation was found. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission was the agency designated to oversee these proceedings. Atlas Roofing was fined for a violation, and it argued that the administrative proceeding was improper because it violated the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. This generally applies to common-law claims when the value of the amount in controversy is greater than $20.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Since the Seventh Amendment applies only to actions based on the common law, its right to a jury trial may not be applied to proceedings based on violations of laws that did not previously exist. It should not be interpreted to bar all administrative proceedings or restrict all fact-finding in civil cases to a jury. For example, the National Labor Relations Board has the unchallenged authority to determine whether a company has engaged in unfair labor practices.

Case Commentary

A similar outcome probably would have been reached at the state level, although the Seventh Amendment has not yet been incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment so that it applies to the states.

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